Dictating to the Estate – Maxilla Social Club, London

Reviewer: Jane Darcy

Writer: Nathaniel McBride

Directors: Lisa Goldman and Natasha Langridge

Dictating to the Estate is an unexpectedly thrilling piece of theatre. Special Measures’ documentary play is a fierce, engrossing work exploring the events leading up to the catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower.

The words are drawn from documentary evidence – council minutes, email correspondence and blog posts. Each of the thirteen short scenes, explores a particular angle of the shocking story of cover up, collusion and cronyism by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Beyond them stand arraigned the coalition government and David Cameron’s determination, first stated in 2012, to ‘kill off health and safety’.

The genius of writer Nathaniel McBride is in creating a searing work from potentially numbing material. He has an eye for the most chilling details and a profound understanding of the drama inherent in clashes between the residents of Grenfell Tower and the institutions determined to press ahead with plans for a lucrative refurbishment of the area. These institutions, in particular the TMO – the Tenant Management Organisation of Kensington and Chelsea – represent the Goliath against which the little guys of the Grenfell Leaseholders Association and subsequently the Grenfell Tower Action Group must fight.

Thanks mainly to the persistence of local resident Edward Daffarn – the real hero of the piece – these institutions are repeatedly called to account. Audiences are probably aware of the outline of what emerged in the wake of the fire, but to watch Dictating to the Estate is to be freshly shocked by the wilful negligence of the TMO and its repellent tactics. Evidence is uncovered of their repeatedly ignoring warnings by the London Fire Brigade of the existing dangers in this neglected residential block and the deeply cynical cost-cutting measures, specifically in chosing substandard cladding provided by the construction company Rydon. Beyond this, the TMO deliberately targeted vulnerable residents, threatening to cut off their hot water or even evict them if they refused to let the builders carry out work.

Five actors, Tamara Camacho, Lucy Ellison, Jon Foster, Nathan Ives-Moiba and Avin Shah, play all the parts with talent and conviction. Jon Foster is particularly powerful as the dogged figure of Edward Daffarn. But as the focus of Dictating to the Estate is the urgent story it is compelled to tell, the other actors constantly morphing into different characters, we are more aware of the tight ensemble work than individual performances. Integral to this is the tight direction of Lisa Goldman and Natasha Langridge.

Both the sound and lighting design (Amit Rai Sharma, Mike Gunning) are unshowily effective. We hear the voices of children in the playground before the action begins. Lights dim and rise to underscore both literal and metaphorical darkness.

Grenfell Tower itself looms over the piece, but McBride eschews sensational retelling of the events of the fire. Instead he bookends Dicatating to the Estate with quietly devastating personal evidence from residents. A deep silence that falls over the audience when the piece ends.

You can’t travel to the Maxilla Social Club without being made painfully aware of the fire and its devastating consequences. But there are reminders all around in the streets, in murals, graffiti and in poignant homemade memorials, that the local community remains powerfully united, determined to find hope. Dictating to the Estate is a vital part of this process.

Runs until 12 June 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Thrilling, fierce, engrossing

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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